Big Bend National Park
Big Bend is a land of extremes. Highs and lows, hot and cold, dark and light. After traveling from Fort Worth and enjoying several stops along the way, we arrived at Big Bend National Park the day the government shutdown was announced.
We weren’t sure what to expect, but luckily the park was open all four days we were there. We heard they shut it down after we left, so we felt quite fortunate to have been able to freely explore the whole park. Without any park services, the visitor center was closed, but we found an app called Just Ahead that turned out to be incredibly useful for our visit. You need to download the app and the park program before you lose service, but once you have it on your phone, it uses your GPS signal to guide you to all the points of interest in the park along your drive. There were many scenic areas we would have missed without this app and I’m sure I will download the guides for other parks we visit.
We stayed in Study Butte which we found to be an ideal launch point for both the park and some evening visits to Terlingua. Our four-day itinerary at Big Bend consisted of the following.
- Maxwell Scenic Drive – This is a winding drive that runs from the park entrance near Study Butte all the way down to Santa Elena Canyon. We spent our first day just driving and getting out of our car to hike several trails and view the various stops along the way.
We arrived at Santa Elena near sunset but really wanted to explore the canyon further so decided it would be an excellent place to catch the sunrise and start the next day. We headed back to our campsite and went into Terlingua for dinner.
- Starlight Theatre – a local in the area suggested we check out Starlight Theatre in Terlingua. Terlingua itself is a pretty funky little town. It feels quite authentic and seems to exemplify the extreme in your face vibe of Big Bend. Starlight Theater is one of those places where you sit and think if only the walls could talk. We enjoyed a nice dinner, spicy margaritas, and live music.
- Back to Santa Elena Canyon – We headed out at dark to watch the sunrise at Santa Elena Canyon. I had planned to photograph from the entry to the canyon as a full moon would set almost directly between Mexico and the US, sparkling on the Rio Grande. Unfortunately, we miscalculated how long it would take to get there, so we ended up watching the sunrise from a point just overlooking the Rio Grande facing Mexico directly. The park at dawn is eerily quiet. From where we were sitting I could see a small house with goats just over the river in Mexico. At times the goats sounded like a crying baby. After sunrise, we explored the Homestead Ruins and then hiked by the Rio Grande into the canyon. This is a must see and if you go, my recommendation is to go early. Since we were there for sunrise, we had the whole place to ourselves for quite a while but on our hike back, the crowds were definitely increasing.
- Old Maverick Road – Maxwell Scenic Drive is the smoothest road to and from Santa Elena but since we opted to take Old Maverick Road back toward the park entrance. Old Maverick Road is not paved and while it is a much shorter distance, it takes almost a long as the paved road. I would recommend you have 4wd before heading out on Old Maverick Rd. We saw a Prius pass us by but I suspect they either got stuck or turned around. It’s definitely a different view than the paved roads so if you are inclined to offload, by all means, take this route but be prepared for a long bumpy ride.
- Boquillas Crossing – After covering most of the west side of the park, we decided to head east. After you pass the entrance to the Chisos Mountains, the landscape becomes much flatter and open. It’s a bit of a drive to go from one end of the park to the other but there is a lot to see along the way. Near the southeast end of the park, you can find a small general store at the campground. This is the only campground in the park that has hookups for RV’s. We grabbed a couple of sandwiches for lunch and then headed to the border crossing. We had our passports and planned to cross the border and visit the small town of Boquillas. The crossing is only open Wednesday through Sunday during the winter. Unfortunately, there was no way to know but even though it was during that window, the crossing was also closed due to the government shutdown. So instead we hiked the other the Rio Grande on the other side of the park at the Boquillas Canyon trail. From there we were able to see the town of Boquillas along with the locals hanging out having a picnic near the river.
Day Three – Christmas Eve
- Lost Mine Trail – If you plan to hike and have limited time, this is the one trail I would recommend. It’s a substantial hike close to 5 miles climbing over 1000ft but there are several stops with incredible views along the way. Once you reach the peak, you will be well rewarded with some of the most amazing views within the park. The parking lot for the trailhead is small so arrive early to get a spot. Take lots of water and some snacks to enjoy once you reach the peak, sit for a while then enjoy the downhill hike back to the trailhead. If you have built up an appetite, stop in at the Chisos Mountain Lodge for some lunch.
- Balanced Rock – After lunch, we headed out for another hike at Balanced Rock. You will need to drive on an unpaved road to reach the trailhead.
This is an easy hike with a bit of mild bouldering toward the end and then an impressive view and some unique formations.
- La Kiva – After a day of good hiking, we were ready for a nice dinner out for Christmas Eve. La Kiva is a little subterranean restaurant in Terlingua. The entrance is a large counter-weighted mine-shaft door. After going down a set of stairs, you will enter a small cavern with tables and an area set up for a band and a smaller room to the side with various games and a sofa. Along one of the walls, you will see some pictures of Glen Felts who had taken over the bar from his uncle. We were told a story of a night of drinking gone wrong ending in the brutal murder of Glen Felts outside of this local hangout that shook the town.
Day Four – Christmas
- Christmas morning – This is our second year we have spent Christmas in a National Park and both times we have found it to be incredibly memorable. This year, Lilya was insistent that we get up and have a Christmas morning breakfast before opening any presents. I love that she is focused first on the meaning of Christmas and the time we spend together rather than just tearing through the wrapping paper to get to the ‘goods’. Since we have moved into a tiny space, we think about gifts differently. Our tree was small and our gifts were focused around experiences. Things like binoculars for birdwatching, headlamps for exploring at night, upgraded geocache app, and rocks for painting and hiding. After a relaxed morning, it was time to set out to enjoy our final day in the park.
- The Window – This hike is almost tied with Lost Mine Trail for me. Instead of starting on an incline, you descend between vertical rock walls ending at a waterfall that spills into the Chihuahuan desert below. The last part of the trail is a little trickier to navigate. When we were there, we were able to get very close to the edge of the waterfall right in the middle of the window. The view is spectacular, but I wouldn’t suggest going too far as the rocks can be slippery. The return is uphill but we were able to make it back in half the time we hiked down.
- Sunset at Sotol Overlook – We stumbled on this location our first day in the park and knew it would be a great place to watch the sunset. Our view of the park during the day did not disappoint. It’s a convenient location because you can just park your car and sit at the overlook vs. trying to hike back from somewhere in the dark.
- Stargazing – One of the most special things about Big Bend is the dark sky. It is so remote and so large that you can see the headlights of cars driving on the road from about 20 miles away! If someone were to stand across a peak in the park with a flashlight, you could easily spot them. When we were there, the moon was full but the stars were still amazing and abundant. We packed a dinner including egg nog and pecan pie and found a spot just off the road and sat on the tailgate of the truck eating under the bright starlit Texas sky. It was the perfect way to celebrate and reflect on the meaning of Christmas.
Marfa and Valentine
On our way west out of Big Bend, we decided to go through Marfa. If you haven’t heard about Marfa, it’s a funky little town in the middle of nowhere that is a legitimate destination for foodies and art lovers. Admittedly, we didn’t spend much time in Marfa and it feels a little like a place that is trying to hold on to its authenticity. There are lots of people wandering the streets that are apparently looking to see and be seen.
I was born in Laguna Beach, CA and as a teenager used to spend a lot of time north and south of Main Beach. What I remember is a town that was home to artists and beach junkies and all the people in between. Then along came a little show called ‘Laguna Beach’, and every time I go back home, I get the same vibe as I had in Marfa. It’s great for local businesses but also a little sad to see the takeover.
Marfa Ghost Lights
It seems everyone that has been to Marfa will ask you if you have seen the Marfa Ghost Lights. Right off the highway is an entire rest area dedicated to viewing them. Of course, we couldn’t visit this town without at least giving the lights their due. It was a frigid night, quite windy, but that didn’t stop tons of people from coming out for their chance to see the mysterious orbs that dance just outside of town. Of course, I had to google what causes them, which immediately takes away from the folklore. Either way, I think on a warmer night with a group of friends, it could be a fun place to chill and tell spooky stories.
Bourdain’s Parts Unknown
The first time I consciously recall hearing of Marfa was on an episode of Parts Unknown with Anthony Bourdain. Lenny and I are huge fans of the show and always enjoyed Bourdain’s desire to go to any place the locals would hang out. The Far West Texas episode was one of Bourdain’s last before his death so as our own little pilgrimage, we decided to pop into one of the local bars where Bourdain had a drink and visited with the owner. It’s a typical small town bar, a couple of pool tables with torn felt, and not much distinction other than the large bright red neon sign reading ‘BEER’, and a parking lot paved entirely with beer bottle caps.
Type Marfa into Instagram and you will undoubtedly scroll through thousands of photos of the Marfa Prada art installation. Strangely, it’s not really in Marfa but closer to Valentine. It’s a little building right next to the two-lane highway complete with real Prada purses and shoes in the window. Of course, you can’t shop there but people stop and take some pretty unique photos which are in themselves, their own forms of art.
Valentine and James Dean
A couple that we met in Terlingua suggested we drive a little further into the town of Valentine. There is a small cafe off the road where a scene from the movie Giant starring James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, and Rock Hudson was filmed. We were told we could stop in and have a bite there but when we arrived the owner was just leaving the building. We quickly explained why we were traveling through and with amazing Texas hospitality she opened the doors to let us in and served us a nice hot cup of coffee. Kami, who is a petite woman who looks like she got it a fist fight with the Texas wind and won, explained to us that she bought the cafe a while back after it had been closed with hopes of opening it back up. What she didn’t account for was that she would have to get everything in the kitchen back up to code and for such an old building, that was going to be a massive undertaking, so she is now in the process of turning it into a little boutique. Kami still has lots of old memorabilia in the shop and told us that the town is slowly being deserted and she picks up items around town in abandoned buildings. Kami’s personality is as big as Texas and if anyone can make a go of a shop in the middle of nowhere, it is her. We wished her luck and headed back to the Airstream for dinner.
On the drive back home, as the sun was going down, you could hear faint music blowing in the wind. We pulled over and on the side of the road is a scene from the movie Giant with James Dean looming large over the mountains in the distance.
These were our last few stops in Texas on our way west. We had hoped to continue on the Guadalupe National Park, Carlsbad Caverns, and then White Sands but heard they were all closed. There was winter weather chasing our tails, so we continued on. We will have to make the trip back through to complete that area of Texas some other time.
Next stop, sunny (or rainy) California!